Police will lose valuable tool when PCs scrap front licence plates, chiefs say

The New Brunswick government is following the lead of other provinces in eliminating the requirement for front licence plates on passenger and light commercial vehicles, despite concerns from law enforcement, says the Department of Public Safety.

Amendments to the Motor Vehicle Act were announced last week, when the provincial budget was presented.

The government "consulted with law enforcement" before moving forward, department spokesperson Sarah Williams said in an email to CBC News.

"While we have heard concerns from law enforcement, police in surrounding jurisdictions have been functioning with one plate for many years now, and we have seen no evidence that law enforcement in other provinces is less effective."

Only three other provinces still require front licence plates on passenger vehicles: Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba.

Williams did not elaborate on the concerns expressed by police in New Brunswick.

Police see risk to public safety

Elizabeth Fraser/CBC

But when it comes to licence plates, Wayne Gallant, president of the New Brunswick Chiefs of Police Association, said  two are better than one.

He said the decision to drop the front licence plate diminishes public safety and makes it harder for police officers on the job.

Police will continue to do their job, it's just the removal of a very useful tool from the tool belt. - Wayne Gallant, president of the New Brunswick Chiefs of Police Association

"Neither the concerns of the people who want the one-plate system, nor the financial costs are sufficient to eliminate the front plate because it doesn't trump the public safety concerns," he said.

He uses the example of school bus drivers who call police on a regular basis complaining that vehicles are driving through school bus loading zones, which contain flashing red lights and a stop sign.

Bus drivers are forced to think about children getting on and off the bus, while looking at the car that's passing through the bus's stop sign. They're also trying to get a description of the car, who's driving, and the licence plates.

"It's going to make the job of a school bus driver all that more complicated and make prosecuting these serious offences more complicated," he said.   

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In the past, front licence plates have also helped with amber alerts, stolen vehicles to national security emergencies. He said many hit and run crashes have also been solved because of a front licence plate.   

Even before his government consultation in December, Gallant wasn't surprised by the province's decision to drop the front licence plate.

He was well-aware of the parties' platforms during the provincial election and said it's a revolving issue for any government that comes into power.

Public safety comes first 

While he applauds lobby groups and antique car collectors for their persistence in getting rid of the front plate, the association's position has always stayed the same.

"It doesn't trump public safety concerns," he said.

The Tories promised during the election campaign last fall that they would eliminate front licence plates. In January, Public Safety Minister Carl Urquhart told CBC News it was not a priority for the government.

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"We want to know if it works and if it will work if it's feasible to bring into the province," he said at the time.

But last Friday, Urquhart said the government is following through on its commitment.

"We have heard from many New Brunswickers who prefer to have only one licence plate," he said.

No savings for most motorists

Although the province will save money, the change won't cut costs for most motorists.

Plates currently cost $50.

"Fees from registration plates are used to cover the cost of the province's motor vehicle program and computer system, the delivery of motor vehicle services by Service New Brunswick, and highway infrastructure and maintenance," said Williams.

Owners of vehicles with seasonal plates who were permitted to display a single rear plate will see some savings. They will no longer be required to pay an annual fee, as this program will be phased out.

Registration fees will continue to be due annually, said Williams.

"But government has committed to change, and we will have a separate announcement in the weeks ahead."

Premier Blaine Higgs said during a September campaign stop that the Tories would allow vehicle registration every two years.

Decision left up to the driver 

The date for when the licence plate changes take effect has not yet been announced, but it's expected to be in April.

Motorists are to continue with two plates until the legislation is updated.

Once the change takes effect, they can either continue to display their front plate or drop it off at a Service New Brunswick location.

Vehicle owners will also have the option of displaying a novelty plate at the front of their vehicles instead.

Gallant doesn't expect too many vehicles on the road with two licence plates after the law is changed, so police will rely on other ways to identify a vehicle or the person driving. 

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"Police will continue to do their job," he said. "It's just the removal of a very useful tool from the tool belt."

But People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin supports the changes his party had suggested in 2014.

"It's good to see the government is acting on this recommendation," Austin has said.

However, he said, more can be done, including requiring vehicle safety inspections every two years instead of once a year, and allowing one-time vehicle registration for all personal vehicles.